Writing, Reading, Technology & The Humanity of it All

“…in the meantime, we are going to concentrate on writing itself, on how to become a better writer, because, for one thing, becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Several years ago, while co-teaching a high school humanities class, I was also doing graduate research on the relationship of writing, both formal and informal, impacted a student’s ability to read and think critically. The connection interested me in since reading William Zinsser’s book, Writing to Learn, and provided a reference for my own core teaching and writing beliefs. My thoughts on the teaching of writing continue to evolve given the reading and writing options available today including AI options like ChatGPT, Grammarly, and Rytr; but no matter what new technologies impact the writing landscape, there are two claims by Zinsser on writing for me that should always remain at the forefront for determining the value of writing.

Zinsser’s first claim was “Writing and thinking and learning were(are) the same process.” Relative to this notion, he went on to note “writing across the curriculum isn’t just a method of getting students to write who were afraid of writing. It’s also a method of getting students to learn who are afraid of learning.”  His second claim was, “ Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly…”  So, how do those claims about writing translate in a 21st Century world that offers a range of technology that potentially marginalize or even eliminate paper in many cases?

In classrooms, I have observed students who write and think better through the keyboard and screen, as well as students who respond better with a pencil or pen in hand to paper for developing their thinking regarding matters important to them or make meaning of the reading being done. Then there are pencils for tablets and voice options for ‘writing’ as well that are part of the equation.  However, options available for writing and reading face a number of obstacles (standardized testing/assessment, outside demands on instructional time, etc.) that have limited the informal writing experiences across disciplines providing conditions and motivations for reading and shared thinking. It’s the informal writing experience done in journals, as drafts, or in the margins of notebooks/textbooks(paper & digital) that promote deeper thinking and greater inquiry. Writing as part of an assessment is the product of one’s thinking; but discounting  informal writing opportunities that precede any assessment places limits and ceilings on that thinking.

As educators, it’s important that we get a grasp on options and best practices for literacy across the curriculum…perhaps expand our views of what literacy may mean in a 21st Century school and classroom. One baseline remains universal though; writing, reading and critical thinking/reasoning are essential components to whatever view one might have for a 21st Century literacy construct.  If, as Anne Lamott suggests, that becoming a better writer leads to being a better reader, then we must be able to utilize the expanding list of writing options to personalize and create experiences for students to have them become invested writers who read and think critically.

As educators, what notions of literacy should be carried into current teaching and learning  practice when considering 21st century options for reading, writing and critical thinking for both children and adults? For me it starts with writing…with creating the conditions for writing(especially informally), and carrying a larger understanding of literacy into the classroom as conveyed by Anne Lamott in this passage from Bird by Bird;…

“Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. The thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing-turns out to be the best part…The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

Reading Lamott and thinking about Zinsser’s earlier claims reminds me of the best advice I ever received regarding standardized testing and the obsessiveness too many schools have on ‘test prep.’ The advice: “Provide a quality reading and writing experience across subject areas each day and the test results will take care of themselves.” That advice not only produced ample test scores, but also more proficient writers, readers, and critical thinkers.

Lamott’s passage also reminds me of a commentary I read from the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, How Humanities Can Help Fix the World. The author, John McCumber a language professor at UCLA, notes the growing evidence that skills taught in humanities courses present clear and critical thinking; and knowledge of different cultures that are not taught in highly quantified courses like marketing, economics, or STEM courses. McCumber’s claims brought clarity to what a bedraggled man in the middle of San Francisco was lamenting…the loss of intellect and an advance of ignorance. It’s all more accentuated for me through the rhetoric of a former president along with each election season. It does seem we have lost a bit of our reasoning ability and humanity; and one has to wonder to what degree social media platforms that technology provides influences the choices we make.

It makes me reflect more on that balance between the exposures we are providing children in schools to the humanities versus the STEM related tracks that are the current rage of curriculum emphasis that in some cases create an imbalance of building the literacy muscle to better think critically. Emerging questions for me include:

  • How out of balance are we with the degree to which we stress STEM related curriculum over the humanities?
  • To what degree has technology impacted how society is being shaped absent a balanced connection with the humanities?
  • How does an existing imbalance of STEM or STEAM curriculums with Humanities curriculums impact reading, writing and critical thinking?
  • And perhaps most critical…How do we insure both informal and formal writing is deeply imbedded in STEM related courses?

In his commentary, McCumber cites some troubling instances of ignorance on the college campuses of UCLA and the University of Oklahoma with examples of students’ lack of historical context and use of social media. Those instances should be considered relative to the possible limitations posed by the previous questions. Unfortunately, examples of those instances are being promoted through states like Florida and Texas through the  creation of laws and policies that limit or censor multiple areas of humanities based  curriculum along with movements to ban books.

Balancing the goodness that technology offers must also include room for shared thinking and learning that should be central to reading, writing and critical thinking across the curriculum. At its very base, technology shouldn’t minimize that sense of humanity and story that I use to experience on my walks about San Francisco or currently in my seaside town of Massachusetts. The evolving reach of technology into our lives should promote intellect and suppress ignorance.